The spatial organization of the cutaneous input to hindlimb withdrawal reflexes was studied in spinalized, decerebrated, unanesthetized rats. Reflex activity in plantar flexors of the digits, pronators of the foot, dorsiflexors of the digits, and/or the ankle and flexors of the knee was recorded with electromyographic techniques for up to 12 h after spinalization. Graded mechanical (pinch) and thermal stimulation (CO2 laser) of the skin were used. Reflexes were absent ("spinal shock") during approximately 10-20 min after spinalization. The reflex thresholds for pinch and CO2 laser stimulation then decreased considerably during the following 5-8 h. After this time, even mild pressure (less than 0.1 N/mm2) on the skin was sufficient to evoke a reflex in most muscles. During the period from about 0.5-3 h after spinalization, the nociceptive receptive field of each muscle usually corresponded to the area of the skin withdrawn by the muscle. Maximal responses were evoked from the area of the receptive field maximally withdrawn. During this period, responses to innocuous pinch were evoked mainly from the most sensitive area of the receptive fields. Concomitant with the decrease in reflex thresholds, the nociceptive receptive fields expanded for all muscles, often to include areas of the skin not withdrawn by the muscles. For most muscles, reflexes on tactile stimuli were eventually elicited from the entire receptive fields. The receptive fields for thermonociceptive and mechanonociceptive inputs were similar in most muscles. The interossei muscles were exceptional in that they responded very weakly to thermal stimulation. It is concluded that there are neuronal networks in the spinal cord that translate cutaneous nociceptive and tactile input into a withdrawal. However, the control exerted by descending pathways is necessary to maintain a functionally adequate excitability in these reflex pathways and an appropriate size for their receptive fields.